A star-spangled path to writing a book

Guest post by Marc Ferris

ferrisIn 1996, while sitting in a graduate history seminar at Stony Brook University, I searched for a topic to write about. My professors indulged my inquiry into the culture clash between United States authorities and headhunting tribes in the Philippines after the SpanishAmerican War, but I wanted to combine my dual love of history and music.

Somehow, the thought flashed into my head: “The Star-Spangled Banner” is an old song and, hey, its two hundredth anniversary is coming up in the not-too-distant future. I recalled that Americans may revere the song, but they sure complain about it a lot, griping that it is hard to sing and too difficult to remember the words of the first verse (there are four). I wanted to know how this composition become the anthem. Why did it take 117 years to designate it as such, and what finally prompted Congress to dub it the anthem in 1931?

That semester, as I conducted research and wrote an overview paper on the topic, I discovered that the anthem is the most controversial song in American history. I also learned that I was on to something big, particularly since few books had been written about the song. Though one professor in the department implored me to drop the topic, partly because song biographies are generally outside the bailiwick of historians not affiliated with music departments, I thank Richard F. Kuisel, Wilbur R. Miller, and Nancy Tomes for encouraging me. They knew that I loved the subject and would not be dissuaded, so they approved the topic for my dissertation.

Thanks to a Smithsonian Institution fellowship, I spent the summer of 1999 gathering sources by combing the archives in Baltimore and Washington, D. C. Then, the project languished as life intervened. Every time I heard the song, I cringed, knowing that my beloved project lay dormant. Writing the dissertation (which became the book) seemed like climbing Mount Everest. After having kids, working as a freelance writer, and then entering the field of public relations, it looked as if 2014—the song’s bicentennial—would come and go, and I would end up hating myself.

But in 2012, inspiration struck, and I dusted off my thigh-high mound of documents. I spent every waking moment outside of work writing (except for bathing, sleeping, eating, exercising and playing guitar, drums, and bass). By the end of the year, I had a first draft. The New York publishing houses wanted nothing to do with “serious” history, as one agent called it, but I wrote the book I wanted to write—based on scholarship but accessible to every American with even a passing interest in the song. Had I not been so fortunate to link up with Johns Hopkins University Press, I would have published it myself. If there is one takeaway, it is that by scooping up spoonfuls of dirt, a hill appears.

Going through the final proofs, I decided to make a list of fun facts related to the song. I quickly complied thirty, which will rotate on Facebook and Twitter. Here are five of the most interesting:

  1. Shakespeare wrote the phrase “by spangled star-light sheen” (A Midsummer Night’s Dream) and “what Stars do Spangle heaven with such beauty?” (The Taming of the Shrew).
  1. Anyone with United States currency in his or her pocket or purse is carrying around a paraphrase of a line in the fourth verse of The Star-Spangled Banner, “In God is Our Trust,” parsed to In God We Trust and printed on coins since the Civil War and paper bills beginning in 1957.
  1. The words of To Anacreon in Heaven, the song that Francis Scott Key borrowed for the melody of “The Star-Spangled Banner”, is a sly 1700s paean to drinking and sex. Though understated, the line “I’ll instruct you, like me to entwine; The myrtle of Venus with Bacchus’s vine” is unambiguous.
  1. In one of the most incredible ironies in United States history, a slave-owning southerner whose entire family supported the Confederacy wrote the Union anthem (Francis Scott Key), while an anti-slavery Northerner (Daniel Decatur Emmett) wrote “Dixie,” the Southern anthem.
  1. Jimi Hendrix is hardly the first musician whose rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” anthem created a backlash: ragtime performers in the 1890s and jazz bands in the 1930s played idiosyncratic versions that also raised an uproar. In 1968, Aretha Franklin and Jose Feliciano delivered controversial, individualistic versions of “The Star-Spangled Banner” almost a year before Jimi Hendrix performed his incendiary version at Woodstock.

Marc Ferris earned an M.A. in history from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Newsday, Time Out New York, Spin, Vibe, and elsewhere.  His book, Star-Spangled Banner: The Unlikely Story of America’s National Anthem, was published this month by JHU Press.


Meet Marc Ferris and other JHU Press authors at a variety of activities during Baltimore’s Star-Spangled Spectacular:

10 September 2014, 6:30 pm
Book Talk & Signing –
“The Battle of Baltimore: How Our Harbor Helped Define America”
With Marc Ferris (Star-Spangled Banner: The Unlikely Story of America’s National Anthem)
Burt Kummerow (In Full Glory Reflected: Discovering the War of 1812 in the Chesapeake)
and Ralph Eshelman (IFGR and Travel Guide to the War of 1812 in the Chesapeake: A Reference Guide to Historic Sites in Maryland, Virginia, and the District of Columbia)
National Aquarium
Baltimore, MD

Ferris_jacketThe Battle of Baltimore—which took place in September 1814, shortly after the British attack on Washington, D.C., and the torching of the Capitol and the White House—was an uplifting victory for beleaguered America. The success of Baltimore’s citizen soldiers hastened the war’s end and famously inspired Francis Scott Key’s “The Star-Spangled Banner.” As tall ships return to the Inner Harbor for Baltimore’s bicentennial celebrations, join us for a special program exploring the history and legacy of the Battle of Baltimore, featuring a panel of historians and authors whose recent work has focused on the War of Travel_Guide_cover1812 and its impact on American identity. A reception and book signing precedes the program. This event is hosted by Aquarium CEO John Racanelli and is co-sponsored by JHU’s Odyssey Program, the Maryland Historical Society, and the National Aquarium’s Marjorie Lynn Bank Lecture Series. Book-signing at 6:30 p.m.; program at 7:00 p.m.

Admission: $15.00; register online through JHU’s Odyssey Program (refer to session 918.088.91) or call 410-516-8516.


11 September 2014, 1:00 pm
Author Interview
  Marc Ferris
Star-Spangled Banner: The Unlikely Story of Americas National Anthem
Midday with Dan Rodricks
WYPR, 88.1 FM


eshelman201211 September 2014, 12:30 pm
Book Talk & Signing –
The Battle of Baltimore

Ralph Eshelman
In Full Glory Reflected and Travel Guide to the War of 1812 in the Chesapeake
Johns Hopkins Club
Baltimore, MD

Admission: $20. Club members should call the Hopkins Club for reservations; non-members may contact Jack Holmes for information at 410-516-6928.


11 September 2014, 6:00 – 8:00 pm
Book Signing
Marc Ferris
Star-Spangled Banner: The Unlikely Story of Americas National Anthem
Barnes & Noble
The Power Plant
601 E. Pratt Street
Baltimore, MD 21202
410-385-1709


SSS logo

1214 September 2014, 11:00 a.m. – 8:00 p.m.
Book Sale at
Star-Spangled Spectacular
National Park Service Tent
McKelden Square, Inner Harbor
Baltimore, MD

JHU Press will sell books related to the War of 1812 and host our authors for book signings in the National Park Service tent during the Star-Spangled Spectacular at Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. Join us at the NPS tent in McKelden Square (at Pratt and Light Streets) to celebrate the bicentennial of the Battle of Baltimore and the writing of “The Star-Spangled Banner”!

Admission: Free. Visit Star-Spangled Spectacular for information.


12 September 2014, 4:00 – 6:00 pm
Book Signing
Ralph Eshelman and Burt Kummerow
In Full Glory Reflected and Travel Guide to the War of 1812 in the Chesapeake
Barnes & Noble
The Power Plant
601 E. Pratt Street
Baltimore, MD 21202
410-385-1709


13 September 2014, 9:15 am
Author Interview
  Marc Ferris
Star-Spangled Banner
Weekend News
WBAL TV, Channel 11

Ferris_jacket13 September 2014, 6:00 pm
Book Talk & Signing –
Marc Ferris
Star-Spangled Banner
The Ivy Bookshop
6080 Falls Rd
Baltimore, MD 21209

Book talk, performance, and signing by Marc Ferris at the Ivy during Baltimore’s Star-Spangled weekend!

Admission: Free; call the Ivy at 410-377-2966 for information.

Leave a Reply